Eng­land step on the gas for win­ning start

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Netball - By Ben Bloom in Liver­pool

New Zealand may have re­claimed the world No2 rank­ing just be­fore Christ­mas, but Eng­land proved yet again why it is they, and not yes­ter­day’s op­po­nents, who will pose the big­gest threat to the dom­i­nant Aus­tralians when it comes to this sum­mer’s World Cup.

Eng­land had beaten New Zealand on all three oc­ca­sions they faced them last year – in­clud­ing on the way to win­ning Com­mon­wealth gold – and they be­gan their Quad Se­ries cam­paign by ex­tend­ing that record with this vic­tory at the Echo Arena yes­ter­day.

It was not al­ways plain sail­ing against a side whose aura has slipped over the past cou­ple of years, but Tracey Neville’s team man­aged to re­cover from a fre­netic first-half per­for­mance to put the game be­yond doubt in a bril­liant third quar­ter.

It was a de­ci­sive pe­riod in which the hosts scored nine goals more than their op­po­nents and the vic­tory mar­gin at the fi­nal whis­tle equalled their big­gest win yet over the four-time world cham­pi­ons.

“I started play­ing net­ball 20 years ago and it was al­ways about beat­ing the world No 1 and No 2,” said Neville, the Eng­land head coach. “We wanted to be one of the teams that peo­ple looked at and wanted to beat.

“I can clearly say now that we are, but there is a lot of work to do be­fore the World Cup. In all hon­esty, the [Com­mon­wealth] gold medal wasn’t the pri­or­ity – it was the con­sis­tency of re­sults.

“It was about beat­ing the world No 1 team con­sis­tently and we haven’t done that against Aus­tralia so at the mo­ment it’s about bet­ter­ing our­selves.”

That op­por­tu­nity to prove their Com­mon­wealth vic­tory over Aus­tralia was no fluke will come next week­end in Lon­don and on the ev­i­dence of this en­counter Eng­land look a for­mi­da­ble force.

Un­like her An­tipodean coun­ter­parts, whose sides have changed markedly since those Com­mon­wealth Games, Neville has been able to re­tain a fa­mil­iar feel to her squad, with all seven start­ing play­ers yes­ter­day in pos­ses­sion of Com­mon­wealth gold medals.

Most sig­nif­i­cant, per­haps, was the tal­is­manic pres­ence of Jo Harten, back at goal shooter hav­ing re­cov­ered from the knee in­jury that had kept her out of ac­tion for much of the win­ter.

It is dif­fi­cult to over­state Harten’s im­por­tance to the na­tional side. It is not as though Eng­land are short of shoot­ing op­tions – Rachel Dunn was on the bench with more than a decade of in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind her and He­len Housby is adept at play­ing shooter if re­quired – but when you are the best in the world, as Harten ar­guably is, there is no team that would not dearly love her pres­ence.

Yet de­spite Harten shoot­ing at 100 per cent for much of the open­ing half, Neville soon cut a frus­trated fig­ure on the side­lines as de­fen­sive pres­sure at ei­ther end made for a messy en­counter.

A 25-24 half-time Eng­land lead re­flected the trou­ble a dogged New Zealand side were caus­ing the hosts. “God, we’ve got to step it up sec­ond half,” was Eng­land cap­tain Ser­ena Guthrie’s hon­est as­sess­ment at the break.

They did just that. By the end of the third quar­ter that slen­der one­point ad­van­tage had be­come 10 as player of the match Eboni Usoro­brown mar­shalled a res­o­lute Eng­land de­fence that rou­tinely de­nied New Zealand the chance to en­ter the shoot­ing cir­cle.

A rare send­ing-off for New Zealand goal de­fence Karin Burger ended any hopes of a fightback and the Liver­pool crowd were able to re­lax long be­fore the 13-goal vic­tory mar­gin was con­firmed.

“It was a re­ally hard-fought game so to come off the third quar­ter with that score­line, I’m in­cred­i­bly proud of the girls,” said Guthrie.

“We weren’t quite fin­ish­ing off as we would have liked in the first half and didn’t quite feel com­fort­able out there in gen­eral.

“We kept let­ting them back in the game so we needed to tidy things up and be more ruth­less, which is what we did.”

Hav­ing never won a Quad Se­ries be­fore, Eng­land’s vic­tory keeps them on course for a po­ten­tial de­cider against Aus­tralia at Lon­don’s Cop­per Box on Sun­day after the world No 1 side sur­vived a scare in their open­ing en­counter against South Africa.

Briefly threat­en­ing to end a run of 38 de­feats against their op­po­nents, South Africa forged into a five-goal lead at the end of the first quar­ter only for Aus­tralia’s qual­ity to shine through in the end as they recorded a 62-45 win.

Eng­land face South Africa on Satur­day be­fore Sun­day’s re­match be­tween last year’s Com­mon­wealth Games fi­nal­ists.

Fac­ing off: Eng­land’s Jo Harten (left) com­petes for the ball with Casey Kopua

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